The University of Tasmania (UTAS) is Australia’s fourth oldest university and has campuses across Hobart, Launceston, Burnie and Sydney. In the 12 months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, UTAS was already assessing their in-room conferencing capabilities and future strategy. When the pandemic began in early 2020, UTAS had to rethink their physical spaces so students could continue their classes through lockdowns. Although they had been a Zoom services customer of AARNet since 2018, UTAS was still largely using Polycom and Microsoft Skype for Business throughout their facilities. The pandemic provided a rare opportunity to fast track the upgrade of existing classroom and meeting spaces by deploying AARNet’s Zoom services across the university, enabling synchronous, off-campus engagement with remote students and staff.
Simplicity at the core
UTAS was very methodical with their new room designs to ensure they could make the best of the opportunity. Their criteria included a “keep it simple attitude”, utilising native Zoom functionality as much as possible, an ambition to build rooms in a cost-effective way, and most importantly, maintain a consistent user experience in all spaces.
Manager of Unified Communications at UTAS, Brad Boron, explains how expanding the use of AARNet’s Zoom services and borrowing concepts and ideas shared in the AARNet Zoom community allowed his team to streamline the refresh of facilities. They were able to scale back unnecessary, and often unreliable equipment and legacy thinking through embracing a simpler, more consistent, Zoom Room platform that would be regularly updated with enhancements without additional, incremental costs to the university.
“The simplicity of our Zoom Room designs allowed us to scale up quickly and easily, updating more of our existing facilities within the same allocated budget and timeframe, but at a lower overall cost,” he said.
By carefully thinking about every piece of equipment that goes into their classrooms and meeting rooms, the resulting spaces became much cleaner and more enjoyable to use. Less cabling is required overall with everything smaller and more centralised to the screens and control areas. This further allowed much of the hardware to be hidden and out of the way.
Before fully committing to overhauling their entire video conferencing infrastructure, they built several simple concept and prototype facilities for teachers to test how the system would run in live classes.
“These rooms gave the academics as close as possible to a live, in-person experience of teaching virtually and with hybrid classes,” said Brad Boron. “They were able to stand and walk around while teaching, and retain visibility of all their students, content and chat at the same time across three large monitors.”
Equality and inclusive remote experiences
Brad Boron and his team worked closely with the UTAS academic division to envisage how facilities could be inclusive of both remote and on-campus students, using the feature set of Zoom Rooms to match the identified room requirements. It was imperative that students joining classes virtually from home or off-campus have an equal learning experience to those in the classroom. Not identical, but equal in opportunity and contribution. Leveraging their connection to the high-speed AARNet network, the university can run concurrent Zoom-enabled classes across their campuses for a seamless experience for both remote and on-site students.
UTAS can deliver all of their classes to an online or hybrid audience through Zoom, with the option to record each session for later student revision. Teachers can present from anywhere in the room through the use of tracking cameras and the wireless presentation feature Broadly distributed screens on each side of the room mean that students can sit facing any direction while still being able to see all the presented content or other students on Zoom. The screen arrangements in the room also provides teachers with clear visibility of the online audience, Zoom chat and hand up.
By providing a traditional university experience regardless of whether their students are in the same room or remote, teachers feel comfortable using these spaces to deliver their classes without any compromises. This familiarity is bolstered by some deliberately chosen low-tech solutions, such as standard whiteboards fitted with Zoom-connected cameras. These seemingly minor additions allow teachers to work in the way they are accustomed to while students on Zoom can see what is going in on the classroom.